A Short History
of Mass Gymnastics

What are the Mass Games, why do they take place in the DPRK, and how have the Mass Games in North Korea developed over the years?

The Mass Games are a form of mass gymnastics in which thousands of performers stage a grand, synchronized show. The most well known North Korean example of mass gymnastics were the Arirang Mass Games, which were famous simply for its sheer size. It was listed in the Guinness Book of Records for being the biggest of its kind.

Although mass gymnastics are no longer practised outside of North Korea, they were once a much more common occurrence, especially in the Socialist world.

North Korea Mass Games

Mass Games: Industrial Revolution in Europe

Mass gymnastics trace their roots to the Industrial Revolution in mid-19th-century Europe. The rapid industrial developments taking place at the time inspired people to think of the human body as a machine and to think of multiple bodies as a factory: a collective of machines with capabilities extending far beyond the capacity of a single machine. These metaphors inspired the idea that the Industrial Revolution could be accompanied by a social one.

The first mass gymnastics Mass Games program was subsequently developed as a military exercise in the mid-19th century in Germany. This was followed by the Czech Sokol (Falcon) movement, which by the beginning of the 20th century had established a large network of gymnastic clubs. These clubs quickly spread into regions that would later become part of the USSR. In both cases, the exercises aimed to provide a physical as well as moral training, and particularly the Sokol movement stressed the egalitarian character of the practice. The movement’s promotion of social equality was an eagerly welcomed development at a time when socialism was on the rise in Europe; it is precisely the egalitarian, class-free character of the gymnastics that made them so appealing to many, and what helped the practice expand quickly across the region.

A Spartakiad in Prague, 1985

Photo: A Spartakiad in Prague, 1985.

Mass Games in Russia

The mass gymnastics became particularly popular in Stalinist Russia in the 1920s and 1930s. Mass public exercises (including gymnastics and parades) were organized on Moscow’s Red Square in honour of Stalin. In the Soviet Union, such exercises were promoted to grow young people’s socialist consciousness and their loyalty to the state and to project an image of a strong and healthy nation.

At the same time, mass gymnastics proved attractive as the Soviet Union sought an alternative to “bourgeois” sports events such as the “capitalist” Olympic games. These games were seen as revolving too much around competition, individual achievements and hierarchies. Therefore, in 1928, the Soviet Union hosted its first major international sports event, the Spartakiad, which also included mass- and folk dancing to better embody the collective principles of socialism.

A Spartakiad in Prague, 1985

Photo: A Spartakiad in Prague, 1985.

Mass Games in North Korea

In the DPRK there were similar efforts by the state to “revolutionize” sports in the name of socialism. Read the next part of the Mass Games in North Korea blog for more!

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You can find our sources for this article here and here.

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